SAN FRANCISCO — When Lacey Schwartz celebrated her bat mitzvah more than two decades ago in her hometown of Woodstock, N.Y., a synagogue-goer turned to her and said, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our midst.”
Never mind that Schwartz, a striking 37-year-old with long black curls and a megawatt smile, is about as American as they come. Raised by two Ashkenazi Jewish parents in a largely white upstate New York town, Schwartz’s complexion — darker than that of her relatives — had long been attributed to a Sicilian grandfather.
Despite lingering questions, she believed the story. But when Schwartz enrolled at Georgetown University and the Black Student Alliance sent her a welcome letter based on a picture she submitted, Schwartz could no longer deny something was amiss.
She confronted her mother, Peggy Schwartz, only to discover that her biological father was a black man named Rodney with whom she had had an affair.
The discovery of her family secret and Schwartz’s coming to terms with her newly complex racial identity serves as the basis for “Little White Lie,” a moving documentary that had its official world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival earlier this month following screenings in Cape Cod and Philadelphia.
“I started from a place where being Jewish equaled being white,” said Schwartz. “So I had to push myself to expand my idea of what being Jewish was.”
Upon launching the project 10 years ago, Schwartz thought she was making a film about black Jews. At the time she was living in what she called a “racial closet.” Schwartz identified as black in the broader world, but at home she behaved as though nothing had changed.
Many therapy sessions and a degree from Harvard Law School later, Schwartz decided to hone in on her family’s story. Her biological father had passed away just shy of her 30th birthday, and she realized that if she didn’t investigate her own narrative, she was skirting the issue.
“I wanted people to be having these conversations, but I wasn’t even talking about things in my own life,” Schwartz said. “I felt strongly that I couldn’t talk the talk unless I walked the walk.”
Schwartz’s mother has been supportive of the project since its inception. Peggy Schwartz, 67, said she initially had some trepidation about how others might perceive her (“Will people think I’m a raving lunatic?” she quipped in a New York Jewish accent), but that quickly faded and she felt safe spilling her secrets on camera.
“I owed it to my daughter to no longer be deceptive about what my life was like,” Peggy Schwartz said of her participation in the film, which is slated to air next year on PBS. “She needed to go on her path, and she invited me to go on mine. I’m very grateful for that.”
Still, it wasn’t easy. Years of silence had built emotional walls that were hard to break through, and Schwartz had to push her mother to engage
in conversations about the real circumstances of her birth.
Schwartz’s father, Robert, long divorced from her mother, also agreed to participate but with markedly less enthusiasm. During a lively Q&A session following the San Francisco screening, Schwartz said that while the man she’d always known as “Daddy” went along with her process, it was not the path he might have chosen.
In a particularly moving, if awkward, scene in the film, Schwartz’s father calls her mother’s years-long affair and Lacey’s ensuing paternity — neither of which was divulged to him — “the ultimate betrayal.”
While Schwartz the filmmaker has embraced her black identity, it has not been at the expense of the strong Jewish cultural identity she developed during her formative years. Some of the earliest stirrings of the film came through her work with Reboot, a hand-picked collective of Jewish creative professionals who come together to explore meaning, community and identity.
“Reboot is a space that encourages you to ask the questions you really want to ask about your Jewish identity,” Schwartz said. “It has been inspirational.”
In addition to winning grants from major Jewish funders — the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Jewish federations of New York and San Francisco, and the Righteous Persons Foundation, among them — Schwartz’s film has also received long-term support from Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life.
Schwartz, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and twin 1-year-old sons, serves as the group’s national outreach director and its New York regional director. Diane Tobin, Be’chol Lashon’s founder and executive director, said the organization plans to use the film to educate teens and spark conversations about Jewish diversity.
Schwartz said that she hopes the film will catalyze discussion not only around race, but also the consequences of keeping family secrets.
“This is a very personal story, but it’s also universal,” she said. “It’s a project about family secrets and the power of telling the truth.”